The Hungerfords

When James Smithson claimed in his will that “the best blood of England” ran through his veins, he was referring primarily to his family connection to the medieval Hungerfords.1 The Hungerfords were royal companions and powerful politicians in their heyday, and this good fortune managed to endure for centuries before dwindling away. Their family estates, passed down in some cases for centuries, are the bulk of the properties described in the Hungerford Deed, which is why we now refer to it by this family name. Through the Hungerfords, Smithson could claim links to the noble Seymour family, and from there to English kings and queens.

Portrait of a white man with long dark hair, a mustache, and a thin beard on his chin. He is wearingOne of the earliest prominent members of the Hungerford family is the fourteenth-century patriarch Sir Thomas Hungerford (c. 1328–1398), who represented the counties of Wiltshire and Somerset during his political career and was the first recorded Speaker of the House of Commons. Thomas likely owed his position as Speaker to his close association with John of Gaunt (1340–1399), brother and uncle to English kings and a political powerhouse with land and influence rivaling that of the monarchs.2 Thomas’s son, Walter, was equally well-connected to the royals of his generation. Walter had two sons who lived to maturity, and the family inheritance was divided between them. Though the elder, Robert, received the lion’s share, including his father’s titles and the family home, Farleigh Hungerford Castle, younger brother Edmund married well and fathered what became an expansive family tree.3 Edmund’s younger son, Edward, was the seventh great-grandfather of Macie, Walker, their brother, Lumley, and their paternal first cousin, George Keate, one of Walker’s trustees. 

Though mythologized by Hungerford descendants, the family history is full of rises and falls, as previously favored individuals became pariahs, were labeled as traitors, or wasted the family’s fortunes. Despite this, 18th-century Hungerford descendants were obsessed with this heritage, clinging to the family’s past glory days to add luster to their own lives. Both Macie and her brother, Lumley, had Hungerford as a middle name; Henrietta Maria would, later in life, change her married name to Hungerford as well. Smithson himself financed the creation of a Hungerford Hotel in Paris in the 1820s and requested that his nephew and heir change his surname to Hungerford.4

An obsession with family history and past prestige was not the only thing that linked our eighteenth-century Hungerfords with their forebears. Acts of passion, conflict, and sibling rivalry seem to have been a family hallmark, not limited to the Deed’s examples of Macie and Walker’s disagreements. Their great-uncle, Walter, for example, who left his estate divided between nephews, had become heir only after the untimely death of his elder brother, the family favorite.5 His father, Sir George Hungerford (c. 1637–1712), refused to let him forget it, even after his own death. In his will, Sir George bemoaned his son’s behavior and choices, and resurrected discussion of a lawsuit between father and son.6 Ironically, Walter’s distribution of his inheritance between his numerous nephews, which relied on a confusing tangle of conditions based on who outlived whom, set up further family conflict. Lumley sued cousin George Hungerford’s widow over Studley House, Walter’s home, while his sisters later sued a group of family members in their battle to claim Lumley’s inheritance.7

Screenshot from the will of Sir George Hungerford. Highlighted in pink is an excerpt about how his sSo, when James Smithson invoked his Hungerford ancestry to demonstrate his status and pedigree, he was also evoking the troubled history and estranged relationships of the family. Raised by a mother who believed that this “family heritage was everything: money, security, identity,” Smithson observed firsthand the erratic and sometimes-uncontrolled desire that drove his mother’s choices, as well as the occasionally disastrous aftermath of those decisions.8

Smithson’s own passionate temperament is apparent from the historical record. He clashed with friends and colleagues, even cutting ties with the Royal Society after a minor spat over edits made to his work (the Society might have otherwise been the secondary beneficiary of his estate, instead of the United States).9 Smithson was also a notorious gambler, so addicted to the thrill and risk that he split his time between laboratory research and gaming houses, Ultimately, however, he directed his energy and drive into scientific research and its dissemination—what he called “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”10 He believed that science could create a better world for the many, not just the few.11 You might say that his biggest gamble was his famous bequest to the United States. An institution to promote learning for the betterment of humanity would be his enduring legacy.

Family tree with the title: "The Wiltshire Branch of the Hungerfords. The top of the tree includes S


1 Draft of the Will of James Smithson, 1826, Record Unit 7000, Box 2, Smithsonian Institution Archives. Compare Will of James Smithson of Bentinck Street Cavendish Square, Middlesex, November 4, 1829, PROB 11/1763/129, The National Archives, London. Back to text

2Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, eds., Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 10 (London: Smith, Elder & Company, 1908), 257–258. There are numerous entries for Hungerford family members, organized alphabetically by first name. See also J.S. Roskell and Charles Kightly, “HUNGERFORD, Sir Thomas (d.1397), of Farleigh Hungerford, Som. and Heytesbury, Wilts.”, The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1386–1421 [4 vols], eds. J.S. Roskell, Linda Clark, and Carole Rawcliffe (Stroud, UK: Alan Sutton, 1993). The History of Parliament Online, accessed July 28, 2021. Back to text

Stephen and Lee, eds., Dictionary of National Biography, 258–259. Back to text

4 Heather Ewing, The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 26. Back to text

Will of Walter Hungerford of Calne, Wiltshire, June 26, 1754, PROB 11/809/256, The National Archives, London. Back to text

6 Will of Sir George Hungerford of Cadnam House, Wiltshire, June 3, 1714, PROB 11/539/375, The National Archives, London. Back to text

Keate v Hungerford, 1764, C 12/1011/39, and Keate v Hungerford, 1765, C 12/1230/46, The National Archives, London; Macie v Blake, 1767, C 12/1250/27, The National Archives, London. Back to text

Ewing, The Lost World of James Smithson, 41. Back to text

9 Ewing, The Lost World of James Smithson, 279–281. Back to text

10 Draft of the Will of James Smithson; Will of James Smithson of Bentinck Street Cavendish Square, Middlesex. Back to text

11 Ewing, The Lost World of James Smithson, 300. Back to text